On Doors Open and Shut: Sex and Power Yet Again

One day last week, literally as I sat down in a shared meeting room to write this post, a senior male colleague “joked” that my arrival meant that we “better keep the door open” to avoid problems like those in the news. In that same twenty-four hour period, three female colleagues shared their fraught experiences with sexual harassment or assault.

For someone who studies the history of sexuality and sexual violence, every day seems to bring more to digest. I am glad to see people engaging in new discussions of sex and power daily. Yet I join many friends (mostly, but not exclusively, those who identify as women) in being exhausted by these ongoing disclosures. We tell each other our stories. We share advice on idiosyncratic institutional processes. All the while, we hope for real change and permanent solutions. I’m not sure that people outside such gendered circles fully understand the ubiquity and consequent cost of sexual coercion and harassment.

Lest we think this problem will die a natural death with the next generation, I’ve had to watch my teenage kids’ exposure to sexually aggressive classroom comments this semester too. One reported that a science teacher told a “joke” presumably meant to help students remember the enzyme that separates strands of DNA: What do helicase and teenage boys have in common? They both try to unzip girls’ genes/jeans! My other kid’s teacher apparently offered a “joke” with a more tenuous connection to the course material: He shared that he likes his books better than his wife because his books aren’t used.

These “jokes” aren’t funny. They reinforce heterosexist and sexist assumptions that damage and confine students. All of us who have gritted our teeth through comparable remarks know that like radiation, they cause cumulative damage. How many LGBT kids in those classrooms were reminded of their exclusion by jokes that put forth heterosexuality as a universal? How many girls internalized that boys’ sexual pursuit of them should be the norm? And how many young men saw these jokes as implicit reaffirmation of their power to define, adjudge, and control female-gendered bodies?

The historic operation of sexual power can help us wade through the current avalanche of sexual assault and harassment allegations by connecting these quotidian happenings to the heinous acts that more easily garner mainstream condemnation. History of sexuality makes sense of the cognitive dissonance between colleagues’ eagerness to tell all the stories they (think they) know about false accusations and the fact that every one of my female friends could add themselves to the #MeToo hashtag. When men joke about the risk of being with a female colleague behind a closed door, or people label this the new McCarthyism or a witch hunt, they are willfully ignoring the ways that sexuality has been used to create and enforce power relationships throughout history.

So I look to what I know: teaching. I start my undergraduate history of sexuality classes by explaining why this is a legitimate and necessary area of study, and not, as I was told in a job interview, just “scatology.” Or, as another interviewer opined, a topic that “belongs in The National Enquirer.” Lately, I’ve begun with Mindaugas Bonanu’s mural, painted behind a barbecue restaurant in Lithuania. It shows Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in a wet, open-mouthed kiss. This, I tell students, is why we need to study sex: because we rarely go a day without relying on sex to convey other relationships. Bonanu could have painted Donald and Vladimir playing golf together. Or happily baking a cake. Or enjoying Fox News while sitting side by side.

“Make everything great again” mural in Vilnius, Lithuania (2016). (Mindaugas Bonanu and Dominykas Čečkauskas/Wikimedia | CC BY-SA)

Students laugh at these scenarios because they implicitly understand that sex conveys power in a way few other acts do. Two overtly heterosexual male leaders portrayed in an intimate sexual act with one another? That image (like its predecessor) is impactful because sex orders and enforces other kinds of power relations. The Trump-Putin kiss went viral in part because the transgressive eroticism of two men kissing parallels the danger of the leaders of enemy countries proverbially being in bed together. In modern thinking, sex reveals the truth of relationships.

Just as our students need to be able to think critically and communicate effectively, they need to decode how power operates in modern society. The history of sexuality offers one way to do that by providing students with the intellectual tools to understand their daily lives. I could reference a thousand eighteenth-century incidents with modern parallels: the targeting of the racially and socially vulnerable by the powerful; men’s reformulation of coercion into the appearance of consent; the erasure and disbelief of women’s words; the disbelief that men who have done good would also participate in a system that encourages them to express their power sexually.

In fact, the most consistent reaction to my own scholarship on eighteenth-century sexual coercion is students’ surprise at the parallels to their own experiences. Yet we often leave out sexuality from history, not realizing its absence creates false narratives. For just one example: How does recognizing the sexualized abuse of poor and enslaved women change our history of the wondrous medical advances of the industrial revolution?

So I suggest that we better equip students — and those who are trusted to educate them — with the ability to analyze intersectional operations of power. Is it coincidence that one of my kid’s teachers also joked about good mothers not having children in jail? Or that the other seemed to regularly espouse offensively colonialist beliefs? All of these are ways to exercise, express, and reinforce hierarchies. The recent media coverage of sexual harassment revelations equally reflect our current web of power structures: Charlene Carruthers’ tweet summarized this admirably. Where is the widespread outcry for the harassment and abuse of service workers or imprisoned women? It’s not an accident that Tarana Burke, a Black activist, started the #MeToo tag long before its 2017 viral reincarnation.

I bring up the ubiquitousness of these comments and incidents to underline one of the significant contributions of the history of sexuality: sexual violence, sexual harassment, and sex discrimination are not acts committed by deviants. Marking people as individual bad actors hinders us from recognizing the ways that our society rewards economic, social, and cultural success with sexual access and power. We should not flatten the very real differences between rape, persistent harassment, and inappropriate heterosexist comments. But distinguishing between degree in no way requires us to deny the systemic connections between such actions.

Let’s bring an analytic frame to school dress codes that encourage adults to purvey and adjudge teenage girls’ bodies. Let’s stop excusing discriminatory comments in academia as a result of awkward, socially inept errors. They may be socially inept, but they are not randomly so: too often such comments mobilize sex to express power. The history of sexuality allows us to see that these are not just individual acts; they are how our social systems have been designed to operate.

I worried about this essay becoming a listed litany of slings and arrows, of the thousands of small cuts that together change the course of too many lives. I am so tired of hearing versions of the same disturbing stories. Of seeing those who don’t fit a particular racial/hetero/cis/beauty category having to fight for belief and concern. Of watching friends and colleagues be distracted from their professional undertakings. Of feeling my own astonishment that a virtual stranger has projected onto me his belief that I might act unprofessionally in a professional setting. So yes, it is important to speak.

But we also need to connect individual experiences to the study of sexuality. Individual tales cannot transform a system that is built on power inequities and gendered hierarchies. Neither the scores of people who knew about elite men’s abuses nor their organizations have been forced to reckon with their roles in promoting sexually harmful environments. Institutions from Hollywood to academia to government have profited enormously by continuing to endorse and allow sexist and heterosexist systems of power.

So maybe we do need to talk about doors after all: Open doors don’t stop teachers from conveying that girls and women are appropriate objects of sexual humor. Open doors don’t stop colleagues from believing that women cause problems by their very existence in public and professional spaces. Open doors won’t stop sexual harassment and violence any more than electricity or wifely chaperones will. But just maybe if we open the door to understanding the historic use of sexuality as an operation of power, we can hope to leave these practices behind and see a path to a less demoralizing future.

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One Comment

Historiann

This is a fantastic primer for history of sexuality students. Thanks, Sharon and Nursing Clio!

I especially appreciate the point you make here about continuity vs. change, and how we always like to think that these old problems are a thing of the past, because we modern people now possess The Truth about sexuality. But of course, we historians of sexuality know that every generation invents its own “Truth” about sex, and believes that it has cast off the old, unenlightened ways of the past. We also know that continuity rather than change over time is more relevant in our subfield than perhaps any others.

Talk about back to the future: I was sitting in a grad seminar at Penn after Clarence Thomas earned Senate confirmation for his appointment to the Supreme Court. Mike Zuckerman asked us if we thought we thought we were living through a period of massive change. Many in the class said “yes, of course” they had just witnessed history. One man who’s gone on to have a very distinguished career claimed that “he had already started writing his lectures about the Hill-Thomas hearings.” I thought it was something we’d probably talk about one day in our classes, but I was skeptical that any real change in the lives of women would result.

I guess I was right about that after all. (And I may be the only woman you know who can’t say #MeToo. I’ve experienced gender-based discrimination but no sexual predation or assault.)

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